By Susan Pierce Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
Like other female teenagers, Lily and Melanie Sandler are obsessed with cosmetics and social media -- only from the corporate, not consumer, level.
Seven years ago, at ages 9 and 10, the sisters were whipping up batches of lip balm in the kitchen sink of their Atlanta home.
With help from their mom, Renee, the Sandler sisters co-founded Blamtastic, a lip balm made from natural ingredients that they could proudly say was made in the USA. Renee also took on the title of CEO because, well, she was the only female who wasn't a minor and could legally sign contracts.
Within a year Blamtastic was at trade shows. At age 14, the Sandler sisters pitched to Wal-Mart executives -- and were accepted. Blamtastic is carried nationally by the retail giant, as well as nine other regional and national companies that range from Shop Rite to Albertsons to Dunham's Sports.
Their after-school job is projecting sales of $10 million this year, says mom.
"We like to joke that, at the dinner table, we don't have family conversation, we talk about international commerce, how we are going to rule the world," says Renee, laughing. "It's a different dynamic than most families have."
How they took their homemade lip balm from the kitchen across the country will be their topic Saturday, when Lily Sandler, now 17, and Renee are featured speakers at Mad, Bad and Dangerous at Girls Preparatory School. MBD is a day-long event for female entrepreneurs, designed to inspire women to "ditch expectations and start something," according to organizers.
According to Mandy Senn, GPS special events and volunteer coordinator, the event will include talks by area female business owners, a Women's Marketplace with 50 vendors, and four break-out sessions on the topics: Entrepreneurship 101: Getting Started; Entrepreneurship 201: Securing Funding; Personal Branding; and Work/Life Balance.
"One thing I love about Mad, Bad and Dangerous is that it really is about helping girls explore," says Renee Sandler. "This kind of event is critical when we live in a society that has stereotypical careers set aside for women."
Prior to Saturday's conference, a "24Hour Generator: Girl Edition" will be held for teen girls from area high schools who have already been selected by their schools' administrators. GPS senior Alex George is one of the participants.
"We're going to be split into teams and each team will be paired with a local business. The business will present a problem they are having and the teams will work to create solutions for them," the 17-year-old explains.
Alex says she wants to be a business entrepreneur one day; in fact, she's already got a couple of ideas for apps she says she'd like to pursue if given the opportunity.
"I'm hoping to get more business experience, learn the ins and outs of running a business from this weekend," she says.
THE CHALLENGE It was Renee Sandler's goal to prepare her daughters for the business world when she challenged them to create a new product and form a business plan for it. It wasn't part of their school curricula; it wasn't a homework assignment from the Atlanta private school they attended; it wasn't even mandatory.
"At that time (2007), I had read an article in the Wall Street Journal that said only 12 CEOs leading the Fortune 500 were women. I started to think about my daughters," says Renee. "If such a small percentage of women were being entrusted with leading Fortune 500 companies, we were misrepresented. Would my daughters be sitting in front of someone being evaluated for a promotion one day? Would they be limited because they were women?
"I read the article to them and said, 'Girls, what do you think of this?' I was inspired to think of something to help them create something of their own."
So her "exercise in empowerment" was to start a business of their own.
"I had never started a business of my own, and I didn't think they would take me up on it," says Renee, who was a paralegal in New York City before moving to the South.
Shortly after her mom's challenge, Lily accidentally asked, "Mom, where's my lip blam?" while searching for her lip balm.
Laughing at that slip of the tongue, the sisters decided lip balm was the product they should develop. They used it, they knew what they liked and disliked -- go with what you know. Playing off Lily's words, the sisters dubbed it Blamtastic.
They made a list of their objectives, or core values: Keep the manufacturing local to employ neighbors. They wanted to proudly say "Made in America." They would use natural, botanical ingredients that were the best quality on the market. They'd be kind to the Earth by using sustainable measures wherever possible. And they would pay it forward whenever they could.
"We ordered materials off the Internet," says Lily. "We tried several different methods before we perfected our product."
When satisfied, they gave samples to friends and neighbors, who suggested they sell the balm.
"We started selling it in the school yard, sold it in Northpointe Mall (at a weekend kiosk pop up) and it started getting a life of its own," says Renee. "I thought, 'If they were going to go with this, I would support it.' They were really excited about where we could go. "We launched a business at the beginning of a recession!" Renee laughs.
The Sandlers found a manufacturer in Wisconsin for their balm formula, who made it and shipped it back to them. Working out out of their basement for three years, they outgrew the Wisconsin manufacturer and "now have several manufacturers from coast to coast we use making products we have created," Renee says.
Blamtastic lip balm costs the Sandlers 50 cents a tube to make, says Lily. It retails at Walmart for $2.47; a tube in a clip-on carrying case is $3.98.
The Sandler women have expanded their line into bath and body products, including lotions, shower gels, balm for guys, body mists, cleansers and toners. Blam Block is sunscreen lip protection; Booty Blam is a diaper rash spray for infants. Their new Blamtastic Skins is a line of products from which they will donate 1 percent of sales to animal protection nonprofits.
Renee says both daughters are discovering their niche in the business.
"Melanie is extremely shy. She doesn't want to be in front of the company, and Lily is comfortable in that role," explains Renee. "Lily did 70 percent of the pitch to Wal-Mart. Melanie is extremely helpful in product development and honing the company message."
Lily says her message to the teens at Mad, Bad and Dangerous will be: Age shouldn't be an issue.
"I say: Because you are a teenager, people probably won't want to listen to you, but you shouldn't let it limit you. If you are really passionate about something, and you really feel strongly about it, age shouldn't matter. If you work hard, surround yourself with the right people, you can be successful. Overcoming that challenge is what makes it an incredible journey."